Soyeon Kate Lee: The Long, Creative, Intimate Road

Lisa Houston on February 5, 2014
Soyeon Kate Lee
Soyeon Kate Lee

2010 Naumburg International Piano Competition winner Soyeon Kate Lee keeps a busy schedule of recitals and appearances, collaborating with artists such as the Daedalus and Brentano String Quartets, and concertizing at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, Merkin Hall, and Rose Studio, among many other prestigious concert series and orchestral soloist engagements. Lee won numerous competitions while attending the Juilliard School and is currently continuing her education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In addition to receiving rave notices for her playing, she Lee garnered attention in 2008 when she gave a recital wearing a gown made entirely of recycled juice boxes. On Feb. 16, along with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne-Marie McDermott, and Wu Han, Lee will appear at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo/Atherton as part of the Music@Menlo Winter Series, in a program called “Pianists in Paris,” featuring works of Debussy, Bizet, and Gershwin. When she spoke with SFCV, she had just returned from a short trip to her native Korea. 

You moved to the U.S. at the age of 9 from Seoul. Where did your family settle?

Morgantown, West Virginia, of all places. I had been playing piano, really just for fun. You know, everybody in Korea, at least at that time, played piano and learned an instrument. When we moved I was in complete shock. It’s not like moving to New York where you see other Asians. Really, I was the only Asian besides my sister in my class. Not speaking English and not having friends for a good six months, I started really missing piano because I hadn’t been taking piano for [those] six months, so my parents started to take me to a nearby practice facility at the university and they would just drop me off there after school, so I started really getting back into piano.

You won so many competitions — the competitions at Juilliard, and more recently the Naumburg piano competition, and now you are pursuing a doctorate. Would you describe yourself as someone who always wants to attack the next challenge?

It’s interesting, because I think my view of a life as a musician keeps changing. When I was a student at Juilliard, as you said, I wanted to do a lot of competitions. It was my way of challenging myself and building opportunities for myself. Entering competitions is always a funny thing. It can be very limiting sometime because you take the same repertoire and you perfect it. A lot of the time, people take these same pieces to competition after competition, year after year, because those are the pieces they feel best about under pressure. It sort of cripples your ability to learn a lot of new repertoire and explore a lot of new things. Since I’ve won the Naumburg, I’m not doing a lot of competitions because, A, I’m too old for them and, B, I’m in the part of my musical journey where I want to immerse myself in projects that I’m really interested in.

It sounds more like interest and curiosity than challenge.

Music is not like sports, where you peak at a certain age. It’s such a long road. You have to create different things for yourself and it has so much to offer.

One of your mentors, Jerome Lowenthal, and pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Rzewski’s Four Hands, but he left the premiere for the two of you, in a way, as a wedding gift. Can you describe the relationships with Lowenthal or perhaps one of your other important mentors and how that has affected you?

It’s a great question. I’m so close to all of my mentors. Mr. Lowenthal was my teacher all through undergrad, and after that I had a wonderful teacher named Robert McDonald for four years and now I work with Richard Goode and Ursula. They’re such different musicians and such interesting people. They’ve all taught me very different things. I don’t know that I would say that one stood out more than anybody else, but I think in addition to all their musical inspiration what’s been so special to me is the personal relationship that I’ve been able to cultivate with them, the regular dinners we always have together. Mr. Lowenthal has the reputation for having one of the most colorful studios at Juilliard. All of his students are completely different from one another, and I think it’s his ability to not “train out” what is unique about each student, which I think as a teacher can be very difficult because I think when you’re teaching something you ultimately put your own stamp on things. He’s amazing in his way of guiding you without being invasive.

Ursula, I’ve worked with her more recently, but I’ve known her since I was 18 and she serves a different role for me because she really is a mentor to me now, guiding me through my career. Her enthusiasm for contemporary music, in particular, has been really inspirational because she’s so adamant about forging new relationships with composers, especially composers who are young who can grow up with me. She’s forged relationships for 20, 30 years. Robert McDonald, Richard Goode, we carve out time and we can sit, listen, play, discuss.

I’m in the part of my musical journey where I want to immerse myself in projects that I’m really interested in.

Could you talk about your organization, Music by the Glass?

Music by the Glass is a music series in an art gallery in SoHo, devoted to bringing young professionals and funded by young professionals in the city, which is something that I think is so important for the future of classical music. Because sometimes people talk about the audience-building for classical, and that’s very important: that we have to reach out to younger audiences, but at the same time I worry.

Art will never survive because of ticket sales. It never has. It’s not that kind of medium. There are so many donors at these kind of institutions, like the Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Opera, New York Phil [Philharmonic], but they’re all older and I don’t know that their children are interested in classical music or supporting it. But I think if people start in their 30s, early in their careers, even if it’s a $100 or $200, later on they will become major donors that we have now and the major supporters, so I wanted to create a network of those people. It’s been amazing; our next concert is February 13th for Valentine’s Day. Our board is doctors and lawyers and finance people in the city, and they’re all my age and they’re all gung ho about the series and helping out in every way and bringing all their clients and friends.

In 2008, you wore a dress at Carnegie Hall made from used juice boxes.

I grew up in a sort of eco-friendly home. My parents were always aware of the environment. My dad, he just retired last month, but at the time he was a director of an agricultural R&D center where he was in charge of distributing government funding to farmers and organizations that promote that kind of business. So I’ve always been around it, and we’re so wasteful in so many ways. When I went to the concert, I was already only using organic products sort of overboard anyway, and I sat at the concert thinking 'This is such a great cause and at the same time there’s so much energy wasted because all the bands needed electronic equipment and lights to be set up. And I thought, Classical music has to be one of the most eco-friendly things ever.' We’re reusing everything! Our music, for the most part, is 300, 400, 500 years old. Our instruments, the older they are the more valuable they are. If I could bring the same message with classical music it would be even better. And people still ask me, “Are you still wearing that dress?” No. Because it’s so heavy that it’s impossible to travel with it with the baggage requirements now.

Classical music has to be one of the most eco-friendly things ever. We’re reusing everything!

You said that the “dissonances and rhythmic gyrations” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring — and I’m quoting — “sound even more radical” in the four-hand piano arrangement. Can you explain what you meant by that?

I love the orchestral version, but when you hear a minor second, which is as close a dissonance as you can get, if you play a minor second on a piano, the vibrations and the timbre really rub against each other, so you really feel the angularity of that particular interval. When you hear a bassoon in an orchestra playing an F and a piccolo playing an F-sharp, that’s dissonance too, but because of the different timbre, it’s not as glaring; but when it’s played on a piano, I think the dissonances are even more magnified. The four-hand version, in particular, is such a great representation of Stravinsky, because if you were to see two pianists playing this on one piano, it’s not just aurally exciting. It’s visually exciting, because literally you have to climb over one another and go under one another to be able to play everything that’s in the orchestral score. The first airing of this piece was actually Stravinsky and Debussy playing four hands. I can’t imagine what that was like!

If I could do one thing in music I would do recitals because it’s such a powerful communicative tool; it’s so intimate and you just put yourself out there.

It works well, in that case, to be married to your copianist. You have recorded a very diverse repertoire — Scarlatti and now Liszt. I wonder what your temperament is away from the piano. Is it lavish and romantic like Liszt, or more structured and contained like Scarlatti?

That’s interesting; I’ve never been asked that. I think I’m both. I think I’m a true Gemini. There is a part of me that’s really romantic, but also I like to have everything planned and I want to know what’s going to happen. I just recently recorded Scriabin, the early Scriabin before he turned to mysticism; it feels really like home to me.

What do you think the future looks like for the piano, and the piano recital? Are we, possibly, entering a period when piano soloists will be a bit more like Liszt, a bit more like rock stars?

I think my favorite medium is the piano recital, and if I could do one thing in music I would do recitals because it’s such a powerful communicative tool; it’s so intimate and you just put yourself out there. Unfortunately, so many piano recital series in the U.S. have been dying, and I think it’s the visual aspect that can’t keep up with modern audiences. I think the same in Asia; when I go to Korea, on the subway everybody is on their tablets and their phones. It’s becoming a visually oriented world. I think in order for the piano recital to survive and become, as you say, more like a rock star, like Liszt, I think that actually could happen. Not because there’s something so fancy that we’re doing visually, but people are becoming more isolated than ever, even though they’re superficially connected on Facebook and, whatever, people are lonely and want to connect.

I see this in my own series that I started. I think people crave this intimacy with other people, and it’s not that they have to talk to them; it’s breathing together and absorbing something together. In this case it’s music, and I think the piano recital, and other classical forms, too. It’s so unfortunate what’s happening [in Minneapolis, with the orchestra strike]. But it’s a huge corporation, and a piano recital, compared to that, is not expensive at all. I think there could be a smaller way to bring people together, and I think it doesn’t only have to be these serious recitals — nothing against serious recitals! — but even Vladimir Horowitz devoted a significant portion of his repertoire to very encore-like bits of showpieces. He always played something that was tuneful, that people would like to hear. I think if we could come up with more creative programs and we can talk about them, that’s a way that’s not electronic, so they really feel that they’ve gotten to know you as a person. Because I think that’s what people crave at the end of the day.